I had dinner the night before I left Cuba in a big outdoor restaurant called El Aljibe in Havana. The food is simple roasted chicken, fried pork, black beans and rice. It all comes out on the table family style and everyone digs in. Most people drink cocktails or ice cold Cuban beer,but I always go for wine.
What’s amazing about this place is that it has a good temperature controlled wine cellar with about 15,000 bottles, mostly Spanish, Chilean, and Italian but a few top Bordeaux and even Californian. My table had a bottle of Torres Penedès Mas La Plana Black Label 2000 (I gave it 88 points), Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta Rioja Ygay Dalmau Reserva 1998 (90 points) and Marqués de Riscal Rioja Gran Reserva 1995 (91). These are my scores, not an official magazine blind tasting.
There was some debate at the table over which of the last two wines was better. I liked the smooth, classy style of the traditional Rioja. It had such a wonderful silky texture and balanced fruit with a chocolate, and tea character along with dark fruits. I was in the minority. Everyone else preferred the Dalmau, which has a good dose of Cabernet Sauvignon in it. I thought it was much more international in style with lots of vanilla, currant and berry character on the nose and palate. It was big, juicy, round and soft on the palate.
What do you think about new wave Riojas versus traditional ones?
Regino Gonzalez Valdes, one of the sommeliers at the restaurant, preferred the Dalmau as well. He thought its generous fruit complemented the rich and hearty food, although he said that he liked Italian wines the best with such Cuban home cooking – may be he was just trying to be nice with me!
Regino is a hard worker and there are about two dozen super keen sommeliers on the island, which is not exactly the easiest place to learn about wine. There are probably only three or four hundred different wines available in the Cuban market, so most sommeliers learn their craft from books or the internet. They have dreams of tasting the great wines their counterparts have in America, France or some other place with an open market for wine.
My hat is off to all of the sommeliers in Cuba. And I thank Regino and El Aljibe for another good night of food, wine and friendship in Havana.
Chris Lavin — Long Beach, CA — October 4, 2006 11:26pm ET
James Suckling — — October 5, 2006 5:01pm ET
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